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Twinkle, Twinkle, Chilli-fry

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Rook does not hate his brain, exactly. But it frightens him at how easily he can seem to lose it when Ben gives him a wry grin from behind his seatbelt and, within seconds, wriggles his way free and into Rook's lap. For that is when all coherent thought seem to slip away, out into a bubbling warmth that rises up to engulf him like noise. And it does not help that Ben likes to put his hands on his face and gently rub at the fur there, making the noise louder and rise up like a purr.

Not that Rook purrs, of course. He is after all, only cat-like.

But perhaps a part of him fears losing his mind entirely. Because during one of these sessions, as though without his consent, his mouth falls open and a question pops out.

‘Ben, what is a twink?’

Ben pulls back instantly, the languid, half-shuttered expression on his face quickly fading away into one of easy affront.

‘What?’ he asks, as though he can’t quite believe this is happening, and Rook tenses slightly as his partner’s hands fall away from his face. A second later, they drop down on his shoulders and while the touch is admittedly nicer than nothing, it still does not triumph over the previous skin-on-fur contact.

‘I heard a Plumber use the term, back at the base,’ he explains. ‘And I confess, I found myself curious...’

He hesitates, feeling the urge to run his tongue over his fangs. For some reason, he hasn’t felt this nervous since he was young enough to still be bothered by the absence of his bi'nthak; even now, he shudders to remember those few stumbling months afterwards and how unsteady he was on his feet, especially at the sight of Rayona’s face. The curl of her lips could magically cause the weight of his stomach to escape the ground, and while he has had similar moments with Ben, the frown presently placed on the human’s face sets his nerves jangling in a much more unpleasant fashion. ‘Of course, you can always explain later,’ he adds hopefully. ‘We do not have to do this now.’

He leans forward slightly, knowing from experience that Ben does not usually need much incentive to get back into the swing of things. So it is with a sinking stomach, one that this time feels all too firmly attached to the ground, that he stops, halted by a single human palm on his chest.

‘No,’ Ben says firmly, his eyes tracking Rook’s expression with something approaching wariness. ‘When you get ‘curious’ about a word, you always ask about it immediately. You don’t wait until you’re in the middle of making out with someone – namely me - to ask.’ Then his eyes briefly flit to the side before he makes a face. ‘Actually scratch that. You’re awkward enough for your sense of timing to suck even more than mine does. Asking about...that, when we’re in the middle of this-’ he waves a free hand between the two of them -‘is totally something you would do.’

Rook refrains from asking what he is supposed to scratch. Instead he carefully twists Ben’s restraining hand from his chest, landing a kiss onto it’s side as he brings it to his mouth. But Ben growls and closes it into a fist, tugging half-heartedly even as Rock’s tongue flicks out, just enough to wet the wrinkled hollow between the closed gap of finger and thumb.

‘Dude, gross! No licking!’

‘You always say that,’ Rook mutters, letting go with a sheepish smile. ‘And yet you never protest as much as you could have.’

Ben scowls and flicks his fingers, sniggering as a few drops of salvia land near Rook’s eye. ‘Oh no, don’t think you’ve distracted me. Why are you so interested in twinks, all of a sudden? Just what sort of conversations have you been having with other Plumbers, huh?’

‘I...’

Ben’s eyes narrow. ‘You were talking about me, weren’t you?’

‘I...’ Rook’s head drops, defeated. ‘Yes. We were.’

‘Dude,’ Ben complains, wiggling slightly so he can lean back to cross his arms, not caring in the slightest when Rook shifts uncomfortably beneath him. ‘Not cool. It’s bad enough that you chat to my cousin about us. But did you really have to talk about us at work, too? Isn’t that like, unprofessional, or something?’

‘People talk, Ben.’ Rook looks at him stoutly. ‘It was in the coffee room and Marcus-‘

‘Wait, Marcus, the new Wildvine guy? As in, Marcus the flowering Florauna?’

‘They are still buds, not flowers’ says Rook firmly, determined not to be interrupted. ‘Especially since they have not yet reached full maturity, but that is no-‘

‘Yeah, but they’re gonna be flowers, right? I wonder what kind of colour. Heh.’

Rook sighs, rolls his eyes, and waits for Ben’s cackling to die down. Almost sternly, he lets one of his fingers glide up a nearby thigh, allowing its weight to smooth out the creases in the clothing and Ben flinches, his laugh transforming into a yelp as his hand reaches down to clench onto Rook’s wandering one.

‘Dude,’ he says between gritted teeth. ‘Not cool.’

‘Then let me finish my story.’

Ben sighs, releasing his hand. ‘Fine, fine.’

‘As I was saying, Marcus was discussing the varied sexual exploits of a friend of his and he asked me whether I was fully satisfied dating a twink. Unfortunately, before he could explain further, the alarm went off.’

Ben stares at him. Then his chest puffs up indignantly. ‘Dude! I am so not a twink.’

Rook pats him on the head, gently. ‘Perhaps if you tell me what one is, then I can reassure you?’

Ben looks slightly uncomfortable as he fidgets. ‘Ah, well, it’s like...okay, I guess it’s used to describe a young guy that some other guy wants to, you know, screw? Only they’re all slender and err, pretty I guess. It’s sorta like the gay equivalent of some straight guy having a blonde bit of eye-candy on his arm.’

As Ben struggles with his explanation, it creeps up on Rook that perhaps his partner is also a little unclear on what it means to be a twink. Or at the very least, he acutely wishes to be anything other.

‘You are both slender and pleasing to the eye, Ben,’ Rook tells him, wisely substituting ‘pretty’ for a word he is reasonably sure Ben will not object to. ‘Those are good things. I, for one, enjoy those things.’ He reaches up with a careful hand to poke Ben’s cheek and watches, entranced, as the skin quickly gives way to his touch, swiftly forming a hollow against the press of his fingertips. It is not unlike carving his own personal landscape; but then human skin is malleable in a way Revonnahgander fur is not. Rayona’s, he remembers, would brush up into a purple bruise that bristled against his touch, much like a broken spur from a smashed-out conker shell.

‘It’s a little more complicated than that,’ Ben mutters, sinking down to press his head against Rook’s chest with a tried groan. But he does not shove Rook’s hand away, and from this angle he offers up an easy pathway into the hooded curve of his neck. Rook takes it, letting his nose dive down into the scent of oil fumes, freshly mown grass, and a lemon and lime smoothie. All remnants of Ben’s day and the hours he spent without him.

‘No marks, okay,’ Ben mutters tiredly. ‘I don’t want to explain to Mom how I was mauled by an out-of-control alien.’

He should take offence to that, he really should. Instead, for once, he easily switches his brain off and allows his teeth to sink gently into Ben’s skin.

 

--------------------------

 

The next day, Ben clambers into his truck with a glower.

‘Bad breakfast?’ Rook asks.

Ben, if possible, glowers even harder, and yanks down the hood covering his hair. But that’s not all that falls free; for as soon as the shadows slide away from his partner’s neck, Rook is left staring at the red rings marring the skin there.

‘Yeah,’ Ben bites out. ‘So it turns out that my Mom didn’t want me to explain how I was mauled by an out-of-control alien. Instead, she wants me to explain how I was mauled by, and I’m quoting here, another ‘horny teenager.’’ Ben shoots him a dark look. ‘Moms, huh? It’s uncanny, isn’t it? How they just know.’

Rook attempts to stiffen his spine. It’s ridiculous really how sometimes, without even trying, Ben can cow him with just a look or a hastily spoken word.

‘I don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to hear the sarcasm there,’ he informs Ben in what he hopes to be a reasonably dry tone of voice. ‘And your mother seems to be a reasonable woman; someone that conscious of the nutritional value in her cooking does not strike me as the type to, ah, ban you from certain...recreational activities.’

‘Most moms don’t have to worry about their sons getting stabbed in the neck with Revonnahgander teeth,’ Ben says, equally as dryly.

Rook takes his hands off the wheel, feeling the sudden urge to bury his face within them. ‘I-’ he says, swallowing at the glare Ben turns upon him. ‘I apologise. But...you seem to enjoy it, when I mark you. Or, at the very least, you tolerate it.’

He breathes out a sigh of relief, when, as he reaches over to touch Ben, his partner refuses to flinch away. In fact, he even leans over a little to his right, all to allow Rook to trail his finger over the sore skin there. Rook is careful, gentle even, as he brushes against the indents his teeth had left the night before, his fur shifting across the small dips and hollows that to Mrs Tennyson’s eyes must have looked appallingly incriminating.

‘Dude,’ Ben mutters, his voice slightly muffled as he squashes his cheek against the window. ‘It’s not like humans don’t ‘mark’ each other on the neck all the time. I know what a hickey is; I’ve seen enough of them in high school.’

Rook’s finger freezes on his skin, right where it had been tracing the needle-point puncture of a canine, and Ben sighs at the unspoken question.

‘I’ve thought we’d talked about this? You know, a hickey, or a love bite? It’s basically the stuff you’ve left all over my neck so that it resembles a war-zone.’

Rook draws back, slightly stung, and Ben, perhaps realising his mistake, pulls his cheek away from the window, quickly enough for him to nuzzle the other one into Rook’s retreating palm. It’s much like a magic spell, one touch and Rook freezes there, watching brown hair drape over his fingers and curl at the ends like the leaves of a plant bending to gravity.

‘Sorry,’ Ben murmurs. ‘I’m just kinda upset. You’d be too, if I bit your neck and your Dad saw.’

Rook suppresses a shudder at the thought. But still, he keeps his voice steady as he speaks. ‘That is most unlikely. Human teeth are far blunter than Revonnahgander ones. And if you include our fur in the equation, I doubt many of your species would be able to leave behind too deep an impression.’

And as he speaks, he finds himself running his eyes along Ben’s face and hair, against the softly-drawn angle of it that fits into his hand. It is as though his palm and fingers are no more than a nest for Ben’s cheek to rest inside, to smother down against the invisible life-lines that rise up underneath his fur and crawl across his skin. Lines that Ben cannot see, but Rook is sure, can still feel, all those tiny valleys that give way and press down, much like the spaces between the rubbery toes of a cat’s paw-pad.

Ben chuckles a little, and Rook takes care not to flinch, even though the breath of the other stirs his fur, touching like a tickle across his thumb.

‘I get it. Humans are weak and suck. Our teeth, our hair-‘

‘I like your hair-’ Rook interjects, his fingers twisting deeper into the mane scattered across them.

‘Me too. It’s great. Still, though, it’s kinda a boring colour, I mean, in the grand scheme of things.’

‘My hair is black,’ Rook points out blankly, ‘I do not think you have any reason to worry.’

Ben smiles. But it’s crushed, smothered by his surroundings, by the dark fold of his hair and the crease in his skin from where Rook’s palm forces it to bunch up against his mouth.

‘I don’t know. I wouldn’t mind being able to jump like you guys. I mean Crash-hopper’s way better, obviously, but it must be kinda nice, to leap up and clear a few feet. Or you know, twelve.’

And then, before Rook can even begin to formulate a reply to this, Ben lifts his head, up and away, high enough for him to turn and look Rook straight in the eye.

‘Seriously though, I don’t mind you biting me. It’s not really something I get, and I’ve got no urge to return the favour – I’d end up pulling fur out of my mouth for a week if I tried. Which is actually kinda gross, if I think about it.’ Ben sticks his tongue out to empathise the point and Rook is amused to see him fight down a blush. ‘And...well...I don’t hate it. All the biting, I mean.’

‘Ah.’ Rook lifts his empty hand up so that it can grasp hair, letting his palm slide instead of fall, so that his thumb can dip down to settle on the soft slope of Ben’s jaw. ‘Well with such an invitation, it would be rude to refuse.’

He lowers his face, just enough for him to see the panic widen Ben’s eyes and starts to laugh, even as Ben’s half-hearted swat pushes his chin back.

‘Dude!’

‘My apologies,’ says Rook, though the mirth in his tone betrays the sincerity, ‘but I do require the practise. Humans are a lot easier to mark than Revonnahganders, and your kind does not possess the fur that on Revonnah would spare one public embarrassment.’ He hesitates, remembering a few unfortunate mishaps with Rayona. ‘Well, providing you make sure to brush the fur back once it has been ruffled, and as long as your family does not come close enough to detect the lingering scent of another...’

He trails off at Ben’s horrified look.

‘Wow,’ his partner states. ‘I really did not need that history lesson. That undeniably personal history lesson. I don’t know about Revonnah, but here on Earth we usually don’t like to hear all the details of what our boyfriends, or girlfriends, or whatever, got up to with their exes.’

Rook frowns.

‘C’mon man. You really want to hear about everything I got up to with Julie or the others?’

Rook lets out a growl, then promptly slaps a hand over his mouth, clearly horrified at himself.

‘Yeah, I thought not.’ Ben turns his gaze out the window, hand fumbling for the seatbelt. ‘By the way,’ he adds, ‘Mom wants you to come over for dinner tonight. I think she kinda wants to interrogate you.’

Rook’s eyes widen, and he casts a look at Ben, one filled with betrayal.

‘Hey! I had to tell her something, didn’t I?’

 

--------------------------

 

Mrs Tennyson’s eyes are as green as her son’s and they manage to cast the same bewitching effect when they narrow, for a familiar dread clutches at Rook’s stomach, immersing it in an icy chill. He wonders sparingly whether the glare is inherited or if perhaps Ben has simply learnt to copy it, having been held prisoner by it over the course of many years.

Because for some reason, it appears as though Ben has an immunity. Or perhaps it’s just because Mrs Tennyson’s focus is on Rook. Either way, Ben seems free to grin, rocking back on his heels with a slight flush, one Rook hates him for.

‘C’mon Mom, don’t hold Rook hostage before the meal even begins, huh? He’s just got here after all and you’re always saying how nice and polite he is...’

Mrs Tennyson’s rather pointedly rolls her eyes. ‘Yes,’ she says, with a slight snap to her voice and in his head, Rook swears he hears the thud of a coffin closing alongside it. ‘He is. Such a sweet, thoughtful young man, who was nice enough to gift my son with a very vivid present on his neck.’

Ben ignores this, coming back to land on his feet with a small thud. ‘Yeah, well speaking of presents...’ he drawls, seemingly undeterred by the fury rumbling through his mother’s voice, ‘...Rook got you a little something to brighten up the place.’

At this point Rook frantically prays to Brallada, earnestly wishing Ben to be silent for once in his life. Sadly, his god does not seem to be listening, for the grin on Ben’s face does not slip, not by a single centimetre. And it’s still there, resting as if by default, when, after a quick tug of war, Ben’s hands jerk free the half-crushed stalks of the crocuses Rook has been concealing behind his back.

‘See?’ he asks, beaming as he waves the purple flowers in front of his mother’s face. ‘So thoughtful! He even remembered your favourite colour!’

A blatant lie. The flowers may have been Rook’s idea, but the colour was rather pointedly suggested by Ben, and in such a way that Rook knew it wasn’t worth the argument if he didn’t.

But amazingly enough, Mrs Tennyson’s eyes soften.

‘Aww...’ Almost automatically her hand comes out to cradle the flower, running careful fingers against the crinkled petals. Amazingly, she doesn’t even seem to mind the way the stalks are bent and broken in several places, their leaves splintered into green strips that waver and fall away from their lightly-veined centres. For the next second, Mrs Tennyson looks up to meet his eyes. And then exposes a pleasant smile to them.

To his side, he sees Ben’s grin freeze in place. And then collapse, a slight frown appearing in its steed. Which...is probably not good?

‘Thank you Rook, this is very thoughtful,’ says Mrs Tennyson, a certain breezy quality to her voice. ‘And I think you’ll find I‘ve been just as thorough in cantering to your needs tonight.’ She steps back, and with an uncharacteristic flourish, rolls her arm out in a ‘do come in gesture.’

And Rook, quite bravely he thinks, steps in over the mat and walks down the corridor, his nose crinkling as a smell drifts in, a smell that is not quite familiar, and yet knocks on his memory nevertheless. Ben meanwhile, perks up and races ahead, slamming to a stop next to the table, his breath stopping in surprise. And then he lets in all out in one unfurling whoosh.

‘No. Way.’

Rook steps round him, curiosity aroused. And there, on three nice ceramic plates with the curl of pink blossoms engraved into their sides, lie mountains of...

‘Chilli fries!’ Ben exclaims, the rapture of joy spreading over his face. He turns back to his mother and Rook blinks. Is Ben...is Ben crying?

‘You,’ whispers Ben, with one watery gulp of breath. ‘Are the greatest mom. Ever.’

Which at any other time, would be very sweet. But as of right now, while eyeing the heap of his own chilli fries, ones which seem almost to sway under the weight of red chilli paste, Rook can’t help but feel as though he’s been thrown out to the dogs. Or is it wolves?

He also now understands why the smell isn’t as familiar as it should be. There are still small lumps of chilli stuck in there, sprung free from the grind of a kitchen blender; a far cry from the mass produced sauce made ready-to-go from an earth restaurant. And the fries, buried beneath, carry all the unsymmetrical shapes of unevenly sliced potatoes. Clearly, there was a lot of work put into this dish, and it seems almost a shame that his taste buds will be unable to appreciate it properly.

‘Well, you know me, dear,’ says Mrs Tennyson, deftly pulling out a chair from the table. ‘I believe in making food everybody will able to enjoy. Bon appétit.’ And at this, she flashes Rook a particularly smug look.

And, oh. Oh. He knows that look. He receives it almost every day, whenever Ben thinks he’s being particularly clever. In some cases, it’s even deserved.

Rook frowns and grips hold of his fork tightly as he slides into his seat. He feels as though he’s preparing for war, especially when across from him, Ben lets out a whoop and begins shovelling food into his mouth. Either way, he must be on his guard for clearly Mrs Tennyson possesses the deviousness of a criminal.

‘This must have taken a great deal of work,’ he offers gamely, twisting his fork onto the mush of chilli-paste as slowly as he dares. ‘I do not believe I have ever encountered a receipe for chilli fries before. At fast food establishments, they seem to appear as if by magic. But of course, I am sure that the one you have used tonight is far healthier.’

Ben raises his eyebrows at him, the way he always does when he thinks Rook is being too over the top. And Mrs Tennyson just stares at him, her face carefully blank.

Rook feels a twinge of unease. She isn’t the type of woman to be overly flustered by a compliment, but still, usually at this point she would smile or make a pointed comment to Ben about how lovely and charming his friend is. And it is no sooner than he thinks this that Rook feels the bottom of his stomach drop away. Because, well. It probably isn’t considered good manners, at least by human standards, to rake your teeth against someone’s throat. Especially if that someone is your son.

There’s a dull ring then, a quick chime of battered ceramic followed by a wet splat, and Rook looks up to see Mrs Tennyson’s fork successfully cleave through the strip of potato on her plate. The surrounding sauce sloshes away from the movement as though in a fit of panic and Rook is reminded of a monster movie, as from above the carnage of torn fry and bloody red, a smile emerges, arriving in a bared grin of many teeth.

‘Rook,’ the monster says, her voice pointedly kind, ‘how observant of you. But, if, as you have so thoughtfully pointed out, my food is the healthier option, then why aren’t you eating with more gusto? You’re a growing boy, after all. Don’t be shy; go on, dig in.’

Rook swallows. Mrs Tennyson waits, a bright gleam in her eyes. And Ben continues to wolf down his portion.

‘This is great!’ He cheers between mouthfuls. ‘I can’t wait to see what’s for desert!’

But all desire for sweets has fled from Rook’s pallet. Instead he stares down at the single fry he has recently rammed his fork through. And then, with a heavy heart, lifts it to his mouth.

‘Mmm,’ he manages, as he begins to chew. ‘This is...’ he hastens to swallow, to ignore the spill of lava on his tongue, and that sharp grind of chilli that slides down his throat. ‘Mmmhmm!’ He gives Mrs Tennyson a quick thumbs up and what he hopes is a convincing grin, all while feeling like his very gums have been set on fire. Then, with a fumble, his hand seizes the jug of water lying innocently on the table, and proceeds to chug it down, all pretence of politeness forgotten.

Ben watches, wide-eyed, before turning to his mother. ‘What did you do?’

And in response, Mrs Tennyson simply lifts a hand to her mouth, her fingers fanning over her mouth as it drops open theatrically as if in horror. ‘Oh dear, silly me! I was just so excited at the thought of us coming together for a nice meal, that I must have been a bit too zealous when I sprinkled some chilli flakes over Rook’s portion. I was a little worried, you see; Rook’s such a strapping young man,’-and here her voice lowers into a whispered aside, one strong enough to carry across the table to Rook’s ears – ‘you can tell by all those teeth!’ – before it shoots back up into its normal volume – ‘that I was worried that he would find the amount of chilli I put in the sauce to be too weak for his tastes.’

Ben stares at his mother. ‘Whoa. You’re like a diabolical genius, mom.’

Rook clutches his fork even tighter and tries not to fume.

‘But,’ continues Ben, a little too airily as he leaves his seat, ‘it’s also a kinda uncool move.’ He blinks before sniggering at his unintentional pun. ‘Uncool. Heh. Because you know, of all the chilli and – well, never mind.’ He drifts over to Rook’s side before yanking out his chair with an abrupt thrust. ‘You can let go of the death-grip you have on that fork there, buddy. We’re leaving. Sorry Mom,’ he adds, turning to Sandra, ‘but I’m kinda pulling a move of my own. You know how you used to hand-feed Dad broccoli when he had a bad day at work? Well, I’m doing something similar. Only it’s a lot less gross.’

Sandra stares at her son. This time Rook is sure there isn’t any acting taking place, not when her mouth falls open again. But there’s a thoughtfulness present there as well, sliding up into her eyes and forcing them to soften; but anything Rook can hope to decipher from this is quickly snatched away by the grip Ben exerts on his arm.

‘C’mon! Up and at ‘em.’

And so Rook allows himself to be tugged away from the mystery, to be pulled past a bowl full of bruised and wilted purple flowers, and dragged through a door that yawns out into a cool and chilli-free night.

 

--------------------------

 

‘Good, huh?’

Ben is looking at him, smiling, a blob of chilli sauce still hooked onto the curl of his cheek. It makes him look absolutely ridiculous, but Rook doesn’t have the heart to wipe it away, not when the rest of his mouth is ringed in white. It’s actually kinda funny, like Ben’s gone in for some face-painting and Rook has to snort at the mental comparison his mind instantly makes to the face of a clown. Instead he chooses to swallow down another spoonful of Tiffin-flavoured ice cream before he can be tempted to make a remark that will only make Ben pout at him.

‘Yes,’ he agrees. ‘This was very thoughtful of you, Ben. I do not wish to speak ill of your mother, but I feel as though my tongue has been tortured quite enough for the night.’

Ben laughs. ‘Now you know how I feel when she gives us something that isn’t chilli fries.’

They’re currently nursed in the underside of an unfurled awning from a shop-front, cups of ice cream clutched in their hands. It’s a pity, being locked away from the stars on a night like this, but in Underwood, with the tip of his battered tongue now tingling with a soft strop of flavour, Rook can’t quite bring himself to care.

‘I do not think the comparison holds much weight; your tongue has never been burnt to the same degree as my own. Also, your mother has never sought to spurn your taste-buds out of any malicious intent. Not so in my case.’

Ben shrugs. ‘She’ll get over it.’ There is no further elaboration on his part on what might happen if she does not, Rook is careful to note. It’s like it is not even a concern for Ben. Indeed watching him, he sees Ben let out a small hum of pleasure as he sucks the spoon into his mouth, carefree as you please, before his lips shift, the metal between them twisting slightly to accommodate the lap of his tongue as it scraps out the ice cream nestled in the dip within.

...It might even be erotic, if Rook could just see past the stains on Ben’s skin outside.

‘Mmm.’ The boy in question sighs, smacking his lips together.

And Rook shakes his head, amused.

...But not before Ben’s eyes dart to the side, managing to catch hold of the motion with a mischievous smile of his own. As slippery as an eel, he slides closer to Rook's side, his head tumbling forward in a rush of brown as Rook lifts his own spoon up. And then the Revonnahgander is left blinking as the ice cream on the metal beneath vanishes from sight. Ben lingers there, his hood half-falling over his head in a rustle of motion as he draws out the theft, casually running his tongue into the dip of metal, as delicate as a cat’s. Then, as if nothing is amiss, he leans back, a small smile on his face.

Rook quirks an eyebrow at him.

‘It is not enough for your mother to attempt to rob me of my taste-buds? Must you steal away any small pleasure my tongue hopes to encounter tonight?’

Ben turns to him, a long, slow, easy grin sliding into place as his hood slithers down over his neck and - boom, clash, snap. Rook can hear the sound of the trap snap shut as it closes in over his heart. Because, oh. He knows that grin.

‘I don’t know Rook. Play your cards right, and your tongue might still receive some sort of pleasure.’

Ben’s grin turns cocky, thoroughly unaware of how it is stained at the corners by ice-cream.

Rook watches him, seeing this for what it truly is, some weird Earth courtship ritual. Ben’s already drawing close again, ready to push his spoon and ice cream aside, to draw his eyes down into his own green ones as he dangles the promise of kiss between them. Feed me, he will say, turning the words long and slow, the way he has had done in the past, with that same careful glance of desire Rook has seen other humans use on each other, both on the television, and sometimes on the street.

But he is not human. He is Revonnahgander. And on Revonnah, his people do not re-imagine themselves as infants in need of care in some strange ritual of love. They groom each other instead.

With this in mind, he leans down, furthering Ben’s smile as the human shifts, casting away his tub of ice cream entirely as he faces Rook head on, the way he always does when he wants something. Quickly, as Ben bends forwards, Rook draws their mouths within easy breathing distance of each other, feeling the air charge between them. And then, before he can feel the moment escape, his tongue darts out. Once, twice. Thrice.

And then Ben is backing away, half-laughing as his hands come up to bat away the invasive scrape of tongue and the fine blend of hairs on its surface, as it rounds up each residual spit of white.

‘Dude! Dude, come on!’

But Rook doesn’t let him escape entirely, his fingers chasing wrists and catching them as they clash against his cheeks. Dimly, he recognises the fact that to an outsider they might look as though they’re roughhousing, caught in a battle for dominance after a lip-locked frenzy. Already, his keen ears can pick up the stutter of footsteps, and the sly shutter of a camera phone going off. But then, that is what happens when your boyfriend is a media sensation.

Any other time, he would turn and glare or perhaps just raise an impervious eyebrow to try and shame the intruder into running off. But for now he has a laughing Ben under his hands (and mouth!) and that is something he is both willing and wanting to chase. So he follows those giggles to their source, Ben opening up to him with no prompting and using his own hairless tongue to guide him in.

Rook feels a small thrill of pleasure at the thought that Ben isn’t holding a promise over his head, not this time, nor inviting him into another human game. No, here is a gesture of a more universal sort as their lips smooth out against each other, fur nestling into and around the careful jut of Ben’s human lips, that trim tuck of flesh now slathered with his own handiwork, and he remembers how Ben had complained the first few times they did this, joking about how he might need to floss each time. But as always, the jokes and the stray thoughts become lost in a haze of heat, heat which they both will have to come back from.

Reluctantly, Rook pulls away, his tongue breaking from the other after a quick slide of motion against its side, half-wrapping against its tip in lieu of goodbye. And Ben blinks, a little dazed as Rook smooths a finger against the wet skin surrounding their work.

‘I believe you had something on your mouth,’ he informs him calmly.

Ben looks at him in disbelief for a second. And then bursts out laughing.

 

--------------------------

 

It is time to face the music, as Ben would say. But right now all Rook can feel is the dreadful calm of silence.

Mrs Tennyson looks at him. Then looks at Ben. Then down at their intertwined fingers.

Beside him, Ben fidgets. Rook can read the thoughts on his face, from the slight huff of embarrassment that makes his cheeks rise, to the growl settling on the corner of his wrinkled mouth. Ben is stirred all too easily by displays like this, by the idea of actually having to show affection of the romantic variety in front of a family member.

Rook understands. It is not solely a human thing, to wish to divide one sort of family from another. And it is, in its own way, a little flattering.

‘Look, Mom...’ Ben sighs. ‘Rook’s teeth are probably gonna get into my skin, sooner rather than later, so...look, I really, really don’t want to bring this up but didn’t you, like, get any hickeys when you were my age?’

‘Of course.’ Mrs Tennyson’s answer is swift and decisive and Rook feels a shiver run into his hand from Ben’s side at how prompt it is. ‘But then again, dear, none were made by a series of teeth that looked as though they belonged to a vampire.’

‘Mom, I can change into an alien that is a literal vampire. Trust me when I say Rook’s nowhere in the same league.’

Well. Rook’s not sure whether to take offense at either of their answers.

‘If I may interject,’ he says coolly, ‘perhaps we should try addressing the core of the problem?’ He turns to Mrs Tennyson, being sure to meet her eyes. ‘I understand why you feel protective, I do. I am larger and stronger than your son-

Ben starts tugging frantically at his hand, hissing something about how ‘there’s no need to rub it in,’ and ‘I change my mind about everything, gimme my hand back.’

Rook sighs, before suddenly releasing Ben’s hand with little to no ceremony, and suppressing the smugness he feels at the way Ben jerks back a little too hard, nearly losing his balance in the process.

‘And yes,’ he continues steadfastly. ‘My teeth are considerably sharper than those of any human partner Ben could have chosen for himself.’ He tilts his head to the side. ‘I cannot promise not to leave marks on your son, though I am reasonably certain that nothing will scar. It is a part of our relationship, an inter-species one, which means that certain allowances must be made.’

He takes a breath. ‘I understand, like I said before. Ben often has to contend with others a great deal bigger and stronger than both him and I combined. Furthermore, they often possess appendages much sharper than my own, including my teeth. Your worry is not entirely unfounded. But perhaps it should be managed. I am not an enemy. And if your son experiences any sort of pain in his relationship with me...’ he coughs. ‘He is perfectly capable of letting me know about it.’

Tentatively, he feels Ben’s fingers brush his own. And gently, he allows them to push back into the space he allows for them, opening his own hand up into a ready grip. He does not need to turn his head, after all, to witness the expression spreading over the face he will see there.

Besides, the expression on Mrs Tennyson’s face is arguably more important. And she looks...defeated. And a little choked up.

‘Oh my,’ she says. ‘I feel a little ashamed. I’m so sorry Rook! I turned into one of those annoying mothers you see on television all the time, the dreadful sort who suffocate their own children with their needless worrying.’

‘Mom...’

‘No. I was...a little frightened when you walked in last night, with all those marks on your neck. I had never seen them up close before and it brought home to me the fact that you were really dating an alien.’ She sighs and her eyes flock up towards the ceiling. ‘Perhaps I’m simply not as open-minded as I thought I was. But...I just remembered Rook’s teeth. And I panicked.’ She shook her head. ‘But then, tonight, when Ben actually pulled me up on my manners...’ She laughs.

‘Uh,’ says Ben intelligently.

Rook shakes his head at the pair of them.

‘At least,’ he offers, ‘you got some flowers out of this whole mess. Plus, you managed to try out a new recipe.’

‘Yeah!’ says Ben enthusiastically, ‘and you know, maybe next time-’

‘I can cook up a tofu and asparagus salad?’

Rook turns, amused, to see Ben’s face drop a mile.

‘Sure Mom,' his boyfriend manages. ‘Sounds great.’

 

--------------------------

 

‘So,’ says Ben later, after they have escaped the warmth of Mrs Tennyson’s kitchen and her myriad apologies. ‘She hasn’t magically turned homophobic. Or speciesist, I guess. She just had a momentary freak-out. Happens to the best of us.’

Rock cocks an eyebrow. ‘And by best, you include yourself?’

Ben laughs, hanging onto his arm with a grin. ‘Well, yeah. Unless you think I never freak out?’

‘No,’ says Rook dryly. ‘I think I can safely say that that is something I will never say.’

Ben grins, now practically dangling off his shoulder and Rook eyes him contemplatively.

‘Do you wish for me to carry you?’

‘No! But hey, why are you complaining anyway? You’re ‘bigger’ and ‘stronger’ than me, remember?’

Rook groans – but silently, within his own head. Privately, he’s been wondering when Ben would make him pay for his earlier remarks. He has the most curious habit of taking offense at simple observations, no matter how true these happen to be.

‘Ben, baby,’ he says, half in jest, letting the foreign word trip off his tongue with exaggerated zeal - but it has the intended effect all the same. Because Ben immediately lets go off his arm so that he can wrap both hands round his stomach instead, all as if they can hold in the full-blown laugh that erupts from his throat.

Rook smiles and leans closer, his voice dipping down into a pleased purr as it lets words flutter out into the air, forming whispers that can’t quite catch hold of the full affection he holds for this creature by his side, this strange, furless imp that chatters just as much from the cold as he does from excitement.

‘Dude! Lame! Jeez, you’re gonna give me a hernia.’

‘I apologise sweetheart, I simply do not know what came over me, darling, I just had the urge, beloved-’

Ben cackles louder. ‘Stop! Stop!’

It is so totally not them. Which is, of course, exactly why he does it. Because names won’t stick, and neither, after a while, will teeth-marks. But the memory of Ben’s laughter? No, that will linger for quite some time.

Despite himself, Rook eyes Ben’s neck. Another thing that won’t linger, he knows, is that jagged, half-moon crescent near the other’s jugular. But give it half a week and maybe he’ll find it within himself to make some more punctures.

He just hopes he won’t have to buy any more flowers in the meantime.

 

--------------------------

 

The next day, the newspaper in the Tennyson household meets the kitchen table with a resounding smack.

‘Well now, Ben,’ says the culprit, her smile twitching at the ends. ‘Be sure to invite Rook over for dinner, at any time this week. My calendar is suddenly open. Wide open, in fact.’

A little daunted, Ben carefully slides the newspaper across the table to himself. And groans. For there, within the contours of a small grainy photo are two familiar silhouettes, the wrists of one locked into the grip of the other. And above, in small, chock-black letters, the title reads: Ben Ten ‘Caught’ in a Homerotic Tiff?

‘Huh,’ says Ben, ‘that’s a rather big word for a Sunday newspaper to use. Usually they’re screaming about alien immigrants.’ He then takes one look at his mother and cowers. ‘Um...please don’t torture Rook?’

She stares at him a moment, then loosens her shoulders with the same roll of movement a pro-wrestler would use before a match, sighing with an abject loss of grace. ‘I suppose I now know what to get you for your birthday at any rate,’ she remarks blithely. ‘A pair of handcuffs. That way you can keep that sort of hanky-panky off the streets and away from any nosy photographers.’

Ben’s face falls. But not as fast as his head manages to meet the table with a resounding clunk, his hair blurring into the grey shades of the offending photograph and oh-so-helpfully obscuring the title from view.

Now all he has to do, he tells himself, is convince Rook to buy some more flowers. That, or elope. To, like, somewhere that serves real chilli-fries. And maybe, if Rook’s lucky, an actual meatball sub.